Roger Mustalish, Amazon researcher and protector, answers questions
With what environmental organization are you affiliated?
I’m president of the Amazon Center for Environmental Education and Research Foundation, a U.S. nonprofit with offices in West Chester, Penn., and in Iquitos and Puerto Maldonado, Peru.
What does your organization do?
ACEER’s mission is to promote environmental conservation by being a catalyst for awareness, understanding, action, and transformation. We achieve this by creating learning centers in globally significant ecosystems — such as the Amazon rainforest and the Andean cloud forest — from which we conduct environmental education programs, support basic and applied research, and protect unique habitats.
What are you working on at the moment? Any major projects?
Later this summer, in partnership with the Amazon Conservation Association, we will begin construction of the world’s first canopy walkway in a cloud forest. It will be an engineering marvel with a unique classroom/laboratory; when completed, faculty, students, and visitors will be able to literally walk among the treetops of the cloud forest. And then — if they are truly adventurous — they can travel downriver to our Los Amigos and Tambopata field stations, crossing seven ecological zones in the process. It will be like visiting all of the ecosystems from the North Pole to the equator!
How do you get to work?
I drive a pickup truck on my 17-minute commute to ACEER’s office on the campus of West Chester University of Pennsylvania.
What long and winding road led you to your current position?
My formal training has been in environmental science and public health. In 1993, while dean of health sciences at West Chester University of Pennsylvania, I traveled to the Peruvian Amazon and ACEER on a World Wildlife Fund workshop. I was so blown away by that experience that I resigned my dean’s position to go back into the faculty and promote rainforest conservation. Shortly thereafter, I met with someone at ACEER to see how I could help. It turns out the ACEER board of directors was meeting and I was invited to speak with them. I came away with $145,000 for a research project, and within one year of that meeting was named president of ACEER.
A pivotal moment for ACEER came in 1999 when, during an expedition with the JASON Foundation for Education, I literally ran into the chief financial officer of the National Geographic Society on a rainforest trail. That moment has led to a long-term investment in ACEER by NGS. Their support — nearly $1 million to date — has catapulted ACEER into the dynamic organization we now are. It has been quite a ride!
Where were you born? Where do you live now?
I was born in Newark, N.J., but now live on a small farm in rural Chester County, Penn., west of Philadelphia.
What environmental offense has infuriated you the most?
I wouldn’t use the word “infuriated,” but rather a source for me of deep compassion is our systematic destruction of global habitat that is triggering a mass extinction of species, and even human cultures, on this planet. For so many, the driving force is staggering poverty; for others, simple greed. But in either case, it will come to haunt us and succeeding generations, unless we consider a different path.
Who is your environmental hero?
I have two: sort of a “macro-scale” hero and a “micro-scale” hero. My global hero is the Vietnamese poet and monk Thich Nhat Hahn. In his elegant little book, Peace Is Every Step, he writes so clearly and poetically about “interbeing” (all things are interrelated and no thing would exist without other things). He takes the common expression used in environmental work that we need environmental advocacy because “we are all in this thing together” and expands it to a truer, more profound expression, “We are all this together.” Thus, the violence we do to the planet we actually are doing to ourselves, since there is no way to separate us from anything else.
My local hero is Aura Murrieta, ACEER’s director of Peru programs. Aura was born and raised in Amazonia. She beat the odds by finishing school (many Amazonian girls fail to go beyond fourth grade) and works tirelessly, carefully, mindfully, passionately in village after village, school after school, making life better for one child at a time, one teacher at a time, one village at a time. It is in-the-trenches work, but it is also the work of heroes.
What’s your environmental vice?
My truck — useful on the farm, but so poor in gas mileage.
How do you spend your free time? Read any good books lately?
In addition to my ACEER “job” which is essentially full time but strictly voluntary, my “day job” is chairperson of the Department of Health at West Chester University of Pennsylvania, where I also teach courses in integrative health. So free time is at a premium! I enjoy work around the farm, play a bit of piano and guitar, and in general try to be as mindful and grateful as I can be in all aspects of my life.
The last book I read was Jon Kabat-Zinn’s, Coming to Our Senses. He continues to offer effective advice and strategies for “waking up.”
What’s your favorite meal?
I love Indian curries, both to prepare and eat. As a vegetarian, the style offers so much variety.
Which stereotype about environmentalists most fits you?
Given my passion for the rainforest, cloud forest, and the woodlands on my own farm, I guess I’m a “tree hugger.”
If you could institute by fiat one environmental reform, what would it be?
That all land-use decisions must respect the intrinsic carrying capacity of that particular habitat or ecosystem. It is not too much to expect that we all live within our “ecological means” so that we and all other species have the optimal opportunity to survive.
Who was your favorite musical artist when you were 18? How about now?
I grew up with the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, the Moody Blues, and the various configurations of Crosby, Stills, and Nash. Today, I have no particular favorite artist, but rather listen to a broad collection of world music.
What’s your favorite TV show? Movie?
Which actor would play you in the story of your life?
If you could have every InterActivist reader do one thing, what would it be?
Of course, I’d like every InterActivist to consider joining an ACEER trip or making a donation in support of our work.
But in a broader vein, I would invite each reader to pause, if even briefly, to reflect on how they impact their world — not just as consumers, but as individuals, parents, friends, partners, voters, workers, etc. And to make skillful decisions in all that they do so as to foster understanding, caring, and helpful action.